Windows 8.1 'Blue' preview: Well, it beats Windows 8

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Preview does much to improve Metro, but little to make Windows 8 more attractive to either new or longtime Windows users

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Better SkyDrive integration. Along with backup to the cloud, Win8.1 adds an automatic photo/video backup option that puts photos from your Bluetooth-connected phone or camera in SkyDrive. Also new is an option that lets you save files to SkyDrive by default.

Arguably more versatile Charms. The Devices charm, which did exactly nothing in Win8, now has options for Play (that is, play music or a video), Print, and Project (on a projector). Unfortunately, the behavior of the new Charms leaves much to be desired. For example, if you use File Explorer to navigate to an MP3 file, then choose Devices/Play, you're admonished that "You can only play from apps." Similarly, Devices/Print won't print a Word document or PDF file. The Share charm, which did nothing when invoked from the Metro Start screen in Win8, now lets you take a screenshot of the entire screen and send it in an email. There doesn't appear to be any way to save the screenshot, aside from emailing it to yourself.

Desktop improvements
Ersatz Start button.
In Ballmer's Build keynote, the reemergence of the Start button drew one of the few noncomatose responses from the audience. For the life of me, I don't understand why.

Consider this: In Windows 8, if you click or tap in the lower-left corner of the Desktop, you're transported to the Metro Start menu. In Windows 8.1, nothing has changed -- except Win 8.1 has a Start button at the left end of the taskbar (see Figure 6). In Win8 if you right-click on the lower-left corner of the Desktop, you get the power user menu commonly called the WinX menu. In Win8.1, if you right-click in the lower-left corner of the Desktop, you still get the WinX menu.

For this, people actually applauded. I figure it would have taken a Microsoft intern about a day to program the "feature" -- and that includes half a day for scaling the Windows icon.

Windows 8.1 'Blue' preview: It beats Windows 8
Figure 6. The WinX menu adds an option to shut down or restart the computer.

Shut down and restart from the Desktop. The only socially redeeming factor on the Win8.1 ersatz Start button is its inclusion of Shut Down and Restart (Figure 6). They should've been there all along, of course.

Name changes in File Explorer. I don't consider this a feature at all. It's just tweaking something that ain't broke. In Windows 8.1, Computer (which used to be My Computer) gets another name change, to This PC. Also, the old Libraries entry is gone. Fortunately, it's easy to bring back (Figure 7). Just right-click on any empty spot on the left and choose Show Libraries.

You can change This PC back to Computer (or Snardfargrass for that matter) by right-clicking on This PC, choosing Rename, and giving the entry a new name.

Windows 8.1 'Blue' preview: It beats Windows 8
Figure 7: The old Libraries entry is gone from This PC (formerly Computer, formerly My Computer) but easy to bring back.

Change Desktop navigation. This is by far the most important dialog for Desktop users in all of Windows 8.1. Right-click an empty place on the Taskbar and choose Properties, then bring up the Navigation tab (Figure 8). Disable the hot spots in the upper-left and upper-right corners -- you know, the ones you always trigger accidentally when you're trying to get real work done. Have Win 8.1 start on the Desktop. Optionally, mirror the Desktop background on the Metro Start screen (it doesn't make the round trip any less jarring for me, but I don't like in-your-face icons). Show the Apps view instead of the Metro Start screen (see Figure 3) -- it isn't anything like the old Start menu, but it's a step in the right direction. Search everywhere when you search from the Apps list, and list Desktop apps first in the Apps list.

Windows 8.1 'Blue' preview: It beats Windows 8
Figure 8. The Taskbar and Navigation properties options allow you to reel in Metro.
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